[Editor's note: A version of this story appears in the October 2019 edition of Oil and Gas Investor. Subscribe to the magazine here.]
Harold Hamm paused, considering the question. What’s the best advice he’d given President Donald J. Trump?
Quiz Hamm on the date he drilled his first well in Montana, and the chairman and CEO of Continental Resources Inc. can instantly fire back, “April 7, 1995.”
But here he takes his time.
From early June through mid-August, from Oklahoma to Colorado, Hamm spoke to Oil and Gas Investor about the state of the oil and gas industry, his thoughts on politics, ethanol, trade wars and how pipelines ought to be approved. And he spoke about his role as informal adviser, and friend, to the president.
Over the years, Hamm has accumulated as many titles as he has billions of dollars: industry titan, wildcatter, Bakken pioneer, executive of the year, “Fracking King.”
At 73, he’s been one of the most successful and influential oil and gas executives in America. In Washington, he’s been a prominent energy evangelist, leading efforts to lift the oil export ban in 2015. He’s carrying on the same work in a far more important, behind-the-scenes role, today. The Financial Times once described him as “Trump’s oilman.” But his role is far more nuanced than that.
A half-minute later, Hamm is ready. “OK, OK. Let me answer that.”
A security officer pulls out from Will Rogers Airport and steers the black SUV toward downtown Oklahoma City. The landscape is more than picturesque; it’s like a screensaver: shamrock-green fields stretch out, pancake-flat, below azure blue skies.
The lyrics of a Three Dog Night song come to mind: Well I’ve never been to heaven, but I’ve been to Oklahoma …The driver says that the previous day, heavy rains flooded out parts of the city. Cars were submerged and even a UPS delivery truck was stranded.
The SUV pulls up to the nearly 40-year-old Continental Resources Inc. building. Chairman and CEO Harold Hamm’s office is 14 stories above.
On the 14th floor, the interior décor is modest, but a blown-up magazine cover, slightly out of line of sight of the elevator doors, is eye-catching. Hamm poses on the cover of Forbes, wearing a dark blue suit and a light-blue Trump tie that gleams, perhaps from the photographer’s flash. The date on the magazine is May 2014.
The headline proclaims Hamm as “The Man Fueling America’s Future.” But in a matter of months, the oil and gas industry would be faced with an OPEC wrecking ball and a miserable downturn, resulting in a stagnate market.
In a nook outside Hamm’s office hang photos of Hamm and President Trump as well as framed letters. One, written in April 2014, congratulates him on the Forbes magazine cover. Another, written in October 2017, bears the presidential seal.
Hamm exits his office—the same space vacated by former Devon Energy Corp. executive chairman Larry Nichols when Continental bought the building eight years ago. He wears a dark suit, his light blonde hair parted left.
But the Forbes portrait, and that tie in particular, hold a special significance. The tie did, after all, help forge a relationship with a New York real estate developer who is now the most powerful man in the world.
Hamm and Trump’s relationship sprang out of the Romney campaign. Trump invited Hamm to visit him and, in 2014, Hamm was in New York and stopped by. Even then, Trump was considering a run for the presidency.
“Have you thought about running for governor?” Hamm asked.
Trump was adamant about running for the White House. And he wanted Hamm to explain everything he knew about the shale energy renaissance and what it meant for the nation.
On the way out, Hamm meet a few of Trump’s family members, and Trump handed him a rainbow of ties, including the one he would eventually don for his Forbes photo shoot.
After seeing the cover, Trump sent a box of ties to Hamm.
Trump told him, “You’re the best model I’ve got,” Hamm recalls.
In the 2016 election cycle, Hamm initially supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, but by late April 2016 he had thrown his support behind Trump. That same month, before officially endorsing Trump, Hamm spoke at a Hart Energy event. It was clear even then that he was on Team Trump.
“People would like to say he’s a buffoon,” he told the audience. “Sometimes he says things off the wall for entertainment.”
But Hamm also told the audience that he saw in Trump someone “we can reason with … who sees how great America can get” with its energy resources.
Hamm’s inroads have allowed him to give Trump advice. What he considers his best advice was simply giving the president the facts about U.S. oil and gas.
“I started advising the president early about the American energy renaissance,” Hamm said. “What we had as far as natural gas, crude oil supplies, natural gas liquid supplies, all those things.
“First of all, it was hard for our governmental officials to come around to the fact that we weren’t in the same position and dependent upon the Middle East as we once were,” he said. “That we didn’t have to lean on them for all the supplies that the U.S needed. That we were in a totally different position.”
All that proselytizing paid off in July.
President Trump’s July 23 speech to a conservative student group in Washington D.C. derailed, ultimately, over a spoof presidential seal.
Trump spoke for 93 minutes, flitting from topic to topic. He derided a group of freshman Democratic congresswomen. He touted his success in his trade war with China. He branded Iran’s leadership liars.
But what grabbed headlines was the seal, which briefly flashed on a screen behind Trump. It featured a set of golf clubs, a double-headed Russian eagle and a Spanish phrase that translated to “45 is a puppet.”
Still, some, Hamm among them, listened intently to what the president had said. And Hamm liked what he heard.
More than an hour into the speech, Trump addressed tensions with Iran, including the seizure of civilian tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. He questioned why the U.S. continues to police the strait for wealthy countries such as China and Japan. Japan’s constitution bars its military forces from being deployed to resolve international disputes.
“We’re the ones that, for many, many decades, we’re the ones that policed it,” Trump told students at the Turning Point USA’s Teen Student Action Summit. “We never got reimbursed. We police it for all these other countries, and I said a while ago, I said, ‘Why are we policing for China? Very rich. For Japan? Very rich.’”
In 2018, the waterway served as the passage for more than one-fifth of the world’s global petroleum liquids supply, or about 21 million barrels per day (MMbbl/d), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). About 76% of the crude oil and condensate that flowed through the Strait of Hormuz went to Pacific Rim markets, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
“We hardly use it,” Trump said of the strait. “We’re getting 10% [of oil supplies] only because we sort of feel an obligation to do it. We don’t need it. We’ve become an exporter. Can you believe it? We’re an exporter now. We don’t need it. And yet, we’re the ones that, for many, many decades, we’re the ones that policed it.”
While the president’s statistics were low—in 2018, the EIA estimated about 18% of crude oil and condensate traveled to the U.S. via the waterway—the point Trump had made publicly was a victory, as Hamm saw it, for U.S. energy.
Trump’s remarks were a remarkable departure from his predecessors, who have viewed an open, stable Strait of Hormuz as an important conduit for world oil supplies. They were also an affirmation for the U.S. oil and gas industry and the diminished importance of Middle Eastern oil producers.
The U.S. is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern crude.
“He made that statement, I mean, how far has our presidency come in the belief of where we are?” Hamm said. “I mean that’s tremendous. And, so, you know, we have a president that’s pro U.S. energy that believes in what we’re doing here.
“And we’re going to have that supply without sending our troops to every skirmish in the Middle East. We can conduct ourselves totally different. So, I think that’s maybe the biggest help that I’ve been.”
The mid-September attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil processing facilities caused oil prices to spike, but Hamm said the health of the domestic U.S. oil and gas would act as a steadying force.
“While the current situation should prove to be somewhat temporary, weeks or months, it drives home the need and importance for an energy independent America, particularly with crude oil production and supply,” Hamm told Investor on Sept. 16.
Before the attack, Hamm believed the market-embedded risk premium had gone away. While the attack will affect prices by about $10 to $15/bbl, he said that ample inventory will provide “stability to the market.”
The advent of horizontal drilling, the American energy renaissance and ample inventory allows U.S. producers “to address disruptions like this around the world, while protecting American energy needs.
“Thank God for the U.S. energy renaissance,” he said, adding that “15 years ago you would have seen a much more drastic market response.”
Hamm also credited Trump, who he said had “unleashed American energy in a way that provides stability to the rest of the world.”
‘Grinding us up’
Hamm’s private conversations with Trump turn to topics few, particularly the president’s critics, might imagine.
Sometimes, Hamm said, Trump wants to know how things are going generally in business and the economy.
In July, on his most recent trip to the White House, the president wanted to talk about medicine, Hamm said.
“Last time I was there, we talked about the need in this country for generic insulin production,” Hamm said. “It’s very, very necessary. People are having to ration this chemical that saves their lives. They can’t afford enough insulin to basically take care of all their needs.”
Hamm established the Harold Hamm Diabetes Center in 2007 with a goal to cure diabetes. In 2018, he donated $34 million more to the center, according to the University of Oklahoma.
Hamm considers himself part of a network of trusted friends the president reached out to.
“Does he ask for advice on some things? Certainly. And he’s a very good listener. Many people do not know that,” Hamm said. “To answer your question, am I a sounding board? I certainly am in some areas, I think.”
That Hamm is a Republican is clear. He was a speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Before Trump, he advised Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. He has donated millions of dollars to national and state party committees in Louisiana, California, Alabama, Wisconsin and Tennessee and other states, as well as to party leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But Hamm said his political leanings are, in part, a necessity.
“You started out saying you’re a longtime Republican,” Hamm said. “Most oil and gas operators are, No. 1, businesspeople, and of most businesspeople, about 80% are Republican. And their [Democrats’] whole view is of a whole bunch of Republican businessmen they don’t like. So, the whole thing is political.”
Democrats have painted business owners, and particularly oil and gas entrepreneurs, as a sort of public enemy despite the necessity of hydrocarbons to support every facet of daily life, from clothing to using the Internet, he pointed out.
Hamm said initiatives, such as the Green New Deal, aren’t realistic. But Democratic presidential candidates know they play well to their base.
“It’s not that they can ever get away from oil and gas in their lifetimes or even several generations beyond them,” he said. “They know they can’t. But they play to their base by talking to people about grinding us up and doing away with us.”
In the early stages of the Democratic primaries, capitalism itself has come under scrutiny from presidential hopefuls such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In a 2018 bill, Warren proposed giving workers the right to elect at least 40% of their corporation’s board of directors and implementing a five-year wait on the sale of shares by directors and officers of U.S. corporations. In an echo of that policy, the Business Roundtable on Aug. 19 released an updated statement of purpose for corporations that moves away from “shareholder primacy” to companies that benefit customers, employees, suppliers and communities as well.
Hamm sees only opportunity in the country today. The youngest of 13 children to sharecropper parents, Hamm raised livestock and picked cotton before moving away from his home in Lexington, Okla., at around 17 years of age.
“Coming from Lexington and working like we did on the farm, doing everything, we grew up without anything,” Hamm said. Sometimes he went shoeless. “But that was OK. There’s so much opportunity in this country today.”
Hamm started his first company at 21. For his 2011 induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, a prominent physician said of him, “If Harold Hamm did not exist, Oklahoma would have to invent him. Because I can think of no one who better personifies the virtues of our state—hard work, vision, perseverance and public service.”
Hamm believes presidential candidates, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, aren’t a realistic threat to Trump because of their extreme policies.
“I think when you compare Trump with Bernie, I know that Bernie’s way down the list … hell, he just turned into this old guy, an old madman. A screamer. I think Trump will definitely prevail,” Hamm said. “He’s certainly done the right thing for America in so many places it’s unreal. And people realize it.”
Capitalism, he said, is also still alive, well and full of opportunity.
“I think that Bernie is just wrong. We don’t have class warfare here in America, thank goodness. It’s totally different than those countries in Europe that were locked into serfdom and everything there that our forefathers put up with. We have a wonderful country. We just need to realize it and recognize it.”
Could Hamm do it all again—build a massive oil and gas company, find fantastical financial success—in the current environment? Hamm believes anyone with the zeal, drive and intellectual ability can.
“Gosh I can point out hundreds of young people that have done virtually the same thing,” he said. “They have excelled greatly in different walks of life.”
Hamm said the Democrats are simply engaged in political theater.
“As long as you know it’s rhetoric, as long as you know it’s political, then you take it with a grain of salt and go on,” he said.
Of markets and men
At the conference table on the top floor of the Continental Resources building, Harold Hamm and his executives eat salads. A selection of the Bakken’s finest oil has been brought out one or two samples at a time: jars that range in color and viscosity from a thick Guinness-like lager to a jar of what looks like olive oil. He considers the low-sulfur oil the best oil in the world.
Hamm spent untold hours in the nation’s capital, in face-to-face meetings, trying to persuade Congress to let him get the oil out to the rest of the world. His efforts culminated in December 2015 with President Barack Obama lifting the 40-year export ban.
Hamm said that President Obama played hardball, agreeing to sign the bill in exchange for an extension of renewable energy subsidies.
“The wind boys got their wish. We got exports,” he said.
Hamm foresaw that the U.S., the world’s largest producer of oil, would need an outlet for its oil. From 2015 to 2018, oil exports climbed 44% to nearly 7.6 MMbbl/d of oil. Through the first five months of 2019, exports averaged 8.2 MMbbl/d, according to EIA data.
But unlike any time in the past century, oil and gas companies face new challenges. The capitalism that Hamm avows has also forced the oil and gas industry to change.
Growth at all costs has been thrown by the wayside as investors have started demanding balance sheet prudence and free cash flow.
“That entire model that they [E&Ps] were using was broken,” he said.
Still, industry observers have pointed out the double standard to which the industry is held. Ride-sharing service Uber, for instance, lost $1 billion in first-quarter 2019, yet its market cap is about three times that of Continental.
Critics of shale production have emerged even from the oil and gas industry’s own ranks. In July, former EQT Corp. CEO Steve Schlotterbeck spoke at the 2019 Northeast Petrochemical Conference in Pittsburgh and unloaded.
“The shale gas revolution has frankly been an unmitigated disaster for any buy-and-hold investor in the shale gas industry with very few limited exceptions,” said Schlotterbeck, who resigned from EQT in March 2018 over a pay dispute.
The industry, he added, “is self-destructive.”
Hamm said he’s heard such lamentations and prognostications before. He recalled one critic who, several years ago, lamented over the capital destroyed in natural gas production. None of it, the man contended, was going to work out.
But oil and gas investors, as Hamm sees it, have done well putting their money behind Continental and similar producers.
“If you look at our company … we’re up from 2007 to today by 700%,” he said. “That’s not too bad. That’s a pretty good return.”
He sympathizes with some long-holding investors who haven’t reaped the benefits of shale production, “and there [are], for sure,” he said.
“They may have invested in the wrong companies along the way and not done the right things,” he said. But for most oil and gas stakeholders, including royalty owners, company shareholders, lenders and others, “you just have to realize, boy, there’s been a lot of value created, and the expansion of the industry has just been tremendous.”
And the shale industry has not exactly been a bust. In 2018, shale gas made up 70% of total production compared to 16% a decade earlier, according to EIA statistics.
“And with crude oil, actually, you’re up about 125% from where you were at 5 million barrels a day to here you’re at 12 million barrels a day,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a tremendous amount of value and to everybody along the way.”
Still, the path forward looks difficult. For companies with big debts and no easy way to an exit from their investments, the future may even be bleak. Hamm said some private-equity funds are unlikely to generate returns, and public companies, as well, may find difficulty in being competitive.
“I think that the end of the road is there,” he said. “There are a few public companies that also are probably incapable of going to the new model, if you will, and making sure they get a return to investors and have … real returns to the investors through dividends and you name it.”
Hamm said companies such as Continental that have worked to keep general and administrative and operating costs down will again attract investors.
As for worries about peak oil demand and its possible effects on investors, Hamm said that people are often quick to make predictions beyond their lifespan.
“I think those will be just as far off base as the peak oilers were on peak supply,” he said.
Continental has worked to keep investors happy by tamping down general and administrative and operating costs. On June 3, the company announced a dividend and a $1 billion share-repurchase program while batting down speculation that it was contemplating an M&A transaction.
“We think there’s more value there than doing some other things” through deals, he said. “So that’s a good place to put our earnings and free cash flow.”
Continental also increased its five-year free-cash-flow outlook to $5 billion at $60 West Texas Intermediate prices, an increase of $1 billion.
About 20 minutes before lunch begins at the Westin Denver Downtown, two lines form on either side of the hotel’s central escalator.
Hamm sits in front of a black curtain at EnerCom’s The Oil & Gas Conference and offers diners his thoughts on trade wars, rig counts and oil production.
In an interview a few weeks before, Hamm had offered his thoughts on the slow erosion of the U.S. rig count. Since the first week of January, rig counts were down by 15% to 916 as of Aug. 23, according to Baker Hughes data.
Partly the steady ticking down of four or so rigs a week can be explained by increased E&P efficiency in drilling. Continental itself has recently laid down seven rigs.
Hamm told Investor that, in context, the steady drop in drilling rigs doesn’t concern him.
“If you look at the U.S. rig count projection, this thing is headed down to probably 800 rigs. That may be the equilibrium point,” he said. “Maybe by next February we’re going to reach that point where prices stabilize. Perhaps that’s an optimistic view.”
That will require a significant reduction in supply or, less likely, a spike in demand. OPEC—and Saudi Arabia in particular—still hasn’t cut enough production.
“We’ve seen gas being vastly oversupplied, and we’re about to fall in the same boat with oil. Probably [we] are there,” he said onstage in Denver. “The OPEC cuts, I don’t think, were enough back in 2016. They expected maybe that it would make up all the difference. It hasn’t.”
Hamm’s views on OPEC have evolved as the organization has changed. Stretching back to the 1970s, he recalled in an interview, “every time U.S producers got on their feet just a little bit, they’d open up the taps and drown us. That was their favorite deal.”
But in 2014, OPEC’s go-to maneuver—flooding the market—backfired. The U.S. industry survived. But stagnate oil prices continue to cloud the industry.
“I think they underestimated the potential of U.S. shale, and I think they’ve come to realize that it’s more than they first thought.”
Since 2014, Hamm and other oil and gas leaders have met with OPEC officials and representatives of Saudi Aramco.
Hamm said there’s no coordination between the U.S. and OPEC, but there is clearly a recognition that producers have to be more disciplined. For OPEC, that’s meant a remarkable stretch in which its members have adhered to oil quotas. For U.S. E&Ps, the discipline has been “imposed on us by the market and by investors.”
“We run our business and they run theirs,” Hamm said. “One thing I guess we can appreciate them for today is they’ve been fairly open with their reasons for maintaining world supply at different levels.
“The good thing about it is we don’t have to, and we’re not called upon to coordinate with them at all.”
In Denver, Hamm does warn his fellow oil producers that OPEC cannot, by itself, be the answer to the overabundance of oil.
“We should not be depending strictly on OPEC. We need to learn to row our own boat,” he said. “Yeah they’re going to be a player out there. But we need to make sure we don’t oversupply the market.”
Flights of fancy
It’s a quiet moment in Oklahoma City.
Hamm comes out of his office, where his window blinds are closed, and large paper rolls, they might be maps, are lined against the wall in banker’s boxes. For the next three hours he will talk about the Bakken, about politics, about his life.
He smiles, shakes hands and noting the interest in the Forbes cover asks an assistant to fetch a copy.
Hamm’s top communications officer had to persuade him to put the Forbes cover on the wall. And he’s been on a slew of covers, including a 2012 Time magazine cover that named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
He signs the copy of Forbes, adding, “best wishes.”
Yet for all of his success, his relationships and the company he started at 21, he remains disarmingly self-effacing at times.
In an elevator, Harold Hamm presses a button and the lift begins to ascend five stories to the conference room.
Hamm, one of the wealthiest people in Oklahoma and the U.S., doesn’t have the highest perch in the building.
Not yet, at any rate.
“I’m working my way up,” he says.